On 20th April 2023, the Health and Social Care Academy (the Academy) held a hybrid panel discussion in collaboration with the Consortium, as part of its ‘Being Human’ series, which explores the importance of human rights in health and social care. This event celebrated the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and brought together human rights defenders to discuss their roles.
The panel featured three human rights defenders involved in health and social care; Maxine Meighan from About Dementia, Bushra Riaz from Kidney Research UK, and Luca Stevenson, from the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance. Though the nature of their work differs considerably, their ways of working and the values they embody are very similar.
The panel was chaired by Jen Ang, Director of Development and Policy at JustRight Scotland. As a prominent human rights defender herself, she was excellently placed to lead the discussion, and pose questions such as “what is a human rights defender?” and “what do human rights defenders need to feel safe and supported?” At the beginning of the discussion, Jen highlighted that the UN Declaration defines human rights defenders as “ordinary people.” Of course, everyone can be described as “ordinary” regardless of their role or achievements, but perhaps this is the point; that human rights defence depends on everyone. Change only happens when ordinary, brave people ask the question, “is this right?”
Key themes emerged from the discussion between Maxine, Bushra and Luca as they answered the above questions, agreeing with and building on one another’s points:
Amplifying marginalised voices
We heard that allowing people from marginalised communities to speak for themselves was vital for human rights defence. Each of the speakers work with people who are often far away from decision-making processes which shape their lives including; people with dementia, people from ethnic minority communities with kidney disease, and sex workers. One key aspect of human rights defence is bringing the decision-making process to these groups and empowering through education, to advocate for their own rights.
Keeping it Real
A second emerging theme was focused on making rights real, it was argued that we should not get ‘bogged down’ in legal frameworks and alienating language, but focus on the real crises impacting people’s lives. These crises might have roots in law, but human rights defenders should bring these laws to life for ordinary people, applying them to the practical injustices they face on a daily basis.
Barriers to Success
Finally, the speakers discussed the various barriers which prevent human rights defenders from achieving their goals. These include hostile and distancing language directed towards marginalised groups, and processes which dehumanise people and exclude them from decision making. Another significant barrier facing people who want to defend their own rights is the fear of negative consequences for speaking out. Despite these barriers, through persistence and solidarity with one another, human rights defenders can do amazing things.
What made this event unique was the inclusion of songs. True to her word, Maxine amplified the voices of people with dementia by sharing two songs about human rights which had been written by people she works with. The first, ‘Man in A Suit’ reflected on the attempt by the UK Government to replace the Human Rights Act with new, regressive law. The second, ‘Diff’rently the Same’ was a powerful insight into what it is like for your mind to change, but your likes, dislikes and loves to remain the same.
The event ended with some closing thoughts from Jen. She reiterated that being a human rights defender is about stepping up and challenging injustice, no matter what or where, or how much expertise you have. Human rights defenders fight in all kinds of different ways for justice, but they are all defined by their excellent ability to listen to others. Jen left us on a very positive and empowering note, that, according to Greta Thunberg, “you are never too small to make a difference.”